More on computer science and the mosaic theory of the Fourth Amendment

June 4

Professor Bellovin has now responded to my recent post on his article about whether advances in computer science can answer how the Fourth Amendment applies to location tracking. I’ll briefly summarize his position and then respond to it.

As I understand his post, Professor Bellovin believes that a mosaic exists as a matter of Fourth Amendment law when an analysis of location data can support a plausible inference about the person to whom the location data relates. He then notes that location tracking over a week is “likely” to allow a “good” prediction about future location. In his view, gathering a week of location data is presumptively a search because that seems to be a point at which the government can likely analyze the data in ways that enable inferences about a person, such as where the person lives, works, spends time, and the like.

Whatever one makes of this argument, it does not strike me as an argument based on insights from computer science or machine learning. The real work is being done by an assumption about the legal standard together with what Professor Bellovin calls “intuitive reasoning.” The assumed legal standard is that the collection of location information constitutes a search when analysis of location data could plausibly support some sort of inference about a person (exactly what inference, we don’t quite know, but something). The “intuitive reasoning” is that a week seems about right as an answer.

One more thought. Even if Professor Bellovin is correct on the law and the intuition, I’m not sure why that would mean that a mosaic is created after seven days. I understand Bellovin’s argument to be that a mosaic could theoretically be created based on an analysis of seven days of tracking information. But it’s the analysis of the data that allegedly creates the mosaic, not the collection alone. So even if advances in computer science or even just intuition make a mosaic possible after seven days, I would think that whether a mosaic is created in any one case depends on how the location data is analyzed in that specific case. If there are ways of analyzing the data so that the government can’t make the search-triggering inferences while getting other information, then no search should occur under Bellovin’s legal standard even if the location data is collected indefinitely.

Orin Kerr is the Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University Law School, where he has taught since 2001. He teaches and writes in the area of criminal procedure and computer crime law. Kerr is a former law clerk for Justice Anthony Kennedy at the U.S. Supreme Court. From 1998 to 2001, he was a Trial Attorney in the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2013, Chief Justice Roberts appointed Kerr to a 3-year term on the Advisory Committee for the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. You can follow him on Twitter @orinkerr.
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Stewart Baker | June 4